Heather Payne: Versatile Seminole

By Chuck Walsh, Deputy Director of Sports Information

Growing up in Ireland and making a name for herself in the sport of soccer, Heather Payne never really thought about coming to America to play the sport she loves.

The talented midfielder/defender, who started playing soccer at age seven, began working her way up the ranks of the Republic of Ireland National Team program since 2014. She became a member of Ireland’s U15 team in 2014 and is currently a member of Ireland’s Senior Women’s Team. She made her national team debut at age 17.

Payne was a member of Ireland’s team that took part in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Qualifying Campaign in 2019. Despite winning four games in qualifying, Payne and Ireland fell short of becoming the first Republic of Ireland team to play in the World Cup.

While she was making a name for herself on the soccer pitches in Ireland, a pair of Megans – Campbell and Connelly who are also from Ireland – were flourishing at Florida State. Both Campbell (2013-16) and Connelly (2015-18) earned All-ACC and All-American honors during their careers in Tallahassee. In addition, both Campbell (2014) and Connelly (2018) led Florida State to the pinnacle of collegiate soccer – national championships.

“Both Megans were successful with Florida State,” said Payne. “They were members of the 2014 and 2018 National Championship teams, and both earned their degrees. I had never thought much about going to college in America, but when the opportunity presented itself, Florida State seemed to be the best place for me with a great coaching staff and a great overall program.”

Seminole Head Coach Mark Krikorian, who led the Seminoles to the 2014 and 2018 National Championships, often relies on current and former players to help in recruiting. The same was true when he was recruiting Payne.

“Certainty, I relied on Megan Campbell and Megan Connelly to give me some feedback and input about Heather,” said Krikorian. “Both came back saying she was one of the bright young talents in Ireland. She is an even nicer girl than she is a good player. They (Campbell and Connolly) both felt she would be able to come to Florida State, contribute to our team and help us have success in terms of results and that is what we have seen.”

The resounding stamp of approval from two of the top players in program history led to Payne quickly creating her Florida State legacy as a freshman in 2019.

She led the Seminoles to the No. 2 Seed in the ACC Tournament, helped them advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, was named to the All-ACC Freshman Team and was a starter in each of the 20 games she played in.

For Payne, versatility on the pitch served her as well as any of her qualities and has helped her achieve success at Florida State.

Offensively she finished the 2019 season with two goals and two assists. She registered an assist on the game-winning goal by redshirt senior defender Malia Berkely in the second game of the season, leading to an overtime win over nationally ranked Wisconsin. She scored one of her two goals on the season in a 3-0 Florida State win over rival Miami. Payne then helped Florida State advance to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament with an assist in the Seminoles’ win over No. 17 USF.

Defensively, where she played at the center fullback position for the first time in her career, she helped the Seminoles to nine shutout wins as they continued their tradition as one of the nation’s toughest teams to score against. With Payne anchoring the defense, the Seminoles allowed an average of just over one goal per game.

“The most valuable lesson I learned on the pitch in my freshman year is that it is important to be versatile,” said Payne. “For my first season as a Seminole I played as a center back which was a completely new position for me. I am glad I got the opportunity to play in that position and to learn a new role. I think this will be a great asset in the future.”

Krikorian has built his program at Florida State with versatile players. He certainly saw another of his hidden gems in Payne.

“We have seen how versatile a player she is with most of her background playing as a winger, or in more of an attacking role,” said Krikorian. “She has played a little bit for Ireland as an outside back but last year we needed a center back. Heather jumped right in, converted into a center back and had a great freshman year for us playing a position that she was not familiar with. I thought she displayed a fantastic attitude and team first approach.”

We have seen how versatile a player she is with most of her background playing as a winger, or in more of an attacking role. She has played a little bit for Ireland as an outside back but last year we needed a center back. Heather jumped right in, converted into a center back and had a great freshman year for us playing a position that she was not familiar with.

SEMINOLE HEAD COACH MARK KRIKORIAN

In addition to the importance of being versatile, Payne learned many valuable lessons as a freshman including being mentally tough and focused, balancing athletics and academics and a willingness to accept coaching from Florida State’s nationally acclaimed staff.

Payne displayed her mental toughness on the field as she immediately moved into the Seminoles’ starting lineup as a freshman and held her place among Florida State’s starting 11 for the entire grueling season. She was one of only nine Seminoles who played in 20 or more games and played nearly 1,800 minutes. Payne played an average of nearly 90 minutes per game meaning she rarely left the field when she was announced as a member of the starting lineup.

Payne balanced the time she dedicated to being successful on the soccer field and the time she needed to excel in the classroom, as well. The Dietetics major was named to the ACC Academic Honor Roll and to the Florida State Dean’s List in the spring of 2020.

“The most surprising thing I learned my freshman season was how mentally and physically tough a college season is,” said Payne “We play so many games in such a small amount of time. Having two games nearly every week requires you to stay mentally focused while also having to balance your schoolwork. I think I am better prepared going into my sophomore year as I now know what to expect.

“Balancing both your academics and your soccer career is challenging,” said Payne “But if you remain mentally focused on the task at hand, it can be done.”

Payne’s ability to effectively balance the many aspects of her life certainly illustrate the person she is, but according to her teammates she is an incredibly spirited person who quickly gained the respect of her teammates as a freshman.

“Heather came in kind of shy and quiet then bloomed very quickly among the team,” said Berkely. She is high-spirited, very friendly and brings light to the team. Heather is the type of player to encourage and celebrate others’ successes. She is very positive, willing to learn and do her part on the team which is why it’s so easy to play with her as well as be around her.”

In addition to her sterling personality, Berkely also points out Payne’s incredible versatility.

“As a player she is very, very talented and versatile,” said Berkely. “She is a forward with her national team and her freshman year she was a starting center back here.”

Sophomore forward Jenna Nighswonger, who was in the same recruiting class as Payne, agrees with Berkely.

“Heather has the ability to talk to anyone and have a meaningful conversation. She has a very light-hearted personality, but also is the type of person who has their teammates’ trust in conversations. Whether it’s in the locker room or at meals, she is always talking to others and adding to the chat.”

In addition to being classmates, Payne and Nighswonger were also both named to the All-ACC Freshman Team in 2019.

“Heather has a nice way about her, and she wants to learn and get better,” said Krikorian. “I think that during her time here she has come in and made a very favorable impression, she is nice to be around, and she is a very good student as well.”

For Payne, there is incredible pride in playing for her country and for her university.

For Payne, there is incredible pride in playing for her country and for her university.

Thought she is not yet 20 years old and only a sophomore in college, she has already played at the highest levels for both Ireland and Florida State.

“There is no greater honor than representing your country,” said Payne. “I love putting on the green jersey, it brings me a lot of pride and joy.”

She has also experienced the incredible passion of Florida State’s rivalry with the University of Florida.

“My favorite moment at Florida State moment is the game against UF as a freshman,” said Payne. “There was such a great atmosphere which made the game so exiting and intense. It’s always an enjoyable game when you are playing against your rivals in front of your home crowd.”

For a player who had never thought about coming to America, Florida State is certainly glad two life-long Seminoles were able to change her mind.

As a player she is very, very talented and versatile. She is a forward with her national team and her freshman year she was a starting center back here.

SEMINOLE REDSHIRT SENIOR MALIA BERKELY
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